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Standing Out From The Crowd

August 7, 2011

*first published Dec 10 at www.hownottogethit.com

The dark underbelly of writing a book about evolutionary biology and self defence is that, well, you can’t just make it up.  You’ve got to do the research, or the thing will get eaten up by the scientists of this world. This is not fun. Do you have any idea how hard it is to search for scientific articles on Google when you don’t know the title of the paper?  Do you?  I don’t get paid for this you know.

There are always things that don;t make the book, that I couldn’t find in time, or I had to take out due to space limitations.  One of those things is the hours I spent researcing  the brilliantly titled ‘The Influence of the Sensory System and the Environment on Motion Patterns in the Visual Displays of Anoline Lizards and other Vertibrates’ by Leo J Freishman & published in March 1992 (I have to do this) has greatly informed my theories.  Catchy, yes?  These scientists really know how to throw a party.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to bore you with the details, but the findings are interesting – trust me – and itls a shame this particular gem didn’t make the book.  It’s all about sight, you see, how it’s evolved and how animal behaviour has changed to adapt to how sight works.  Specifically, the suggestion is that vertebrate (that’s us) sight has evolved to recognise the movement of other animals behind a background noise of moving shrubbery and foliage.

Not such a leap of faith. After all, growing up in the jungle as we did, it was probably a useful skill to be able to differentiate between a tasty looking vine hanging from a tree and a soon-to-be pissed off snake taking a nap.  So, our sight (and brain) has evolved to pick out particular types of movement against the background constant movement and rustle of the jungle.  Animals wanting to be noticed for mating or territirial purposes have evolved to stand out against it too (bright colours, big movements) whilst predators have evolved to vanish in to the background noise (similar types of movement, mottled colours).

So we see lizards with bright colours and foliage, bears standing on two legs and roaring to scare people away, chimpanzees bearing their bright white teeth (agains the mottled greens of the jungle) to scare away predators; whilst hunting predators have adopted subtle, natural swaying movements (think stalking cats, sneaking chameleons, swaying snakes) to blend in to the background noise of the undergrowth, so that their prey only registers this background noise and fails to pick them out.

In the modern jungle, we can see this in the two main types of aggressive behaviour displayed by humans – that of mating ritual and hunter.  Mating ritual behaviour -scraps over territory / women on a Friday night – are pre-occupied by shouting, pushing, shoving, big movements of the limbs and pushed out chests.  This then is to seperate the aggressor from the background motion noise, to identify the movement with a threat – to advertise the threat of violence.  To scare off the opponent, effectively. Compare this with the movement of a stalker or mugger – soft, subtle, deliberate and measured – designed to blend in to the crowd, not be noticed at all until the job is done.  To conceal the threat of violence. The movement building up to the attack has, essentially, described the nature of and motivations behind the attack.

Understanding another’s body language can help to recognise whether violence is an option, what the violence is motivated by, and thus how to respond.  Food for thought.

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